Why supporting Julian Assange means defending freedom of information

Why supporting Julian Assange means defending freedom of information

On 29 January 2019, Julian Assange’s supporters in Belgium organised a day of action in defence of the Wikileaks founder. A sculpture on Place de la Monnaie, in Brussels, representing Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, pays tribute to whistleblowers and freedom of information.

(Frédéric Moreau de Bellaing)

John Shipton, Julian Assange’s indefatigable father, armed with a smile, stood tall at the Palais des Académies in Brussels on 29 January 2020, at a ceremony awarding four Academic Honoris Causa by the Belgian network of academics, Carta Academica. The event was organised in honour of whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and journalists Sarah Harrison and Julian Assange, who “each in their own way, have put their freedom and even their lives at risk to defend press freedom, freedom of expression and our right to information”.

Speaking before an audience of human rights and freedoms defenders, the Wikileaks founder’s father tirelessly insists that his son is in prison for exposing crimes committed by others. “In my country, Australia, but also in Sweden, the United Kingdom or the United States, it is usually reprehensible to conceal the truth, especially when it is about crimes.”

And it is, precisely, the United States and the United Kingdom that Shipton has been pointing to since Julian Assange published over 250,000 diplomatic cables and 500,000 confidential documents concerning US military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan for the whole world to see, and especially for major international news outlets.

The publication was made possible by his main source, the former military analyst Chelsea Manning, currently in prison for refusing to testify in the Assange case, who hacked into US Department of Defense computer networks. In 2010, Wikileaks broadcast the video Collateral Murder, showing how, on 12 July 2007, in Baghdad, the US Army fired from an Apache helicopter at civilians, including two children and two Reuters journalists present at the scene, killing 18 people.

Since the release of this video, US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump as well as the National Security Agency (NSA) have been after the Australian journalist-hacker’s head for revealing information classified as ‘state secrets’. If extradited to the United States, he could face 175 years in prison for ‘espionage’. Julian Assange has become Washington’s fall guy, not to say its public enemy number one.

“My son has been faced with ceaseless persecution since April 2010,” recalls Shipton. On 19 June 2012, Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK to file an application for political asylum, which he was granted by the former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, after the British justice system issued a warrant for his arrest for breach of bail conditions following a warrant linked to sexual assault allegations issued by Sweden. “Although he was able to take refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London between June 2012 and April 2019,” said his father, “there was no way he could leave the building. He was already a prisoner.”
In November 2019, the Swedish Prosecution Authority finally dropped the charges against him.

After seven years of confinement in the embassy, on 11 April 2019, the wind changed and the new Ecuadorian president, Lenín Moreno, decided to strip Assange of his Ecuadorian nationality. In so doing, he cleared the way for British police to arrest him, and assist in (soon) fulfilling the US authorities’ greatest wish of having him extradited to the United States, which is accusing him of violating the 1917 Espionage Act. Since his arrest, Assange has been under detention in Belmarsh High Security Prison in London.

First hearing: Monday 24 February

On 24 February 2020, the first part of the hearing to decide on possible extradition to the United States will be opened for one week in the United Kingdom, before resuming for three weeks on Monday 18 May. “If Assange is extradited to the United States, he has no chance of a fair trial,” UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer told the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on 27 January. “Assange will be subjected to the same kind of summary justice as that seen in the United Kingdom a few months ago: a criminal trial, without any opportunity to prepare his defence. A summary hearing, of the kind we are seeing today in Turkey: 15 minutes, not one more. A quarter of an hour after entering the courtroom, Julian Assange was convicted, and even called ‘narcissistic’ by the judge.” Melzer was able to visit Assange in prison on 9 May 2019 and came away convinced that the case was highly politicised.

In his report for the United Nations, the special rapporteur describes the treatment received by Assange as “psychological torture”, after seven difficult years in the embassy. He said that there was no justification for having held Assange in virtual isolation for the nine months up until January of this year, recalling that, beyond 15 days, prolonged isolation is considered to be psychological torture.

In November 2019, over 60 doctors signed an open letter to the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel voicing their concerns about the state of the 48-year-old Australian’s health.

The UK government refrained from answering the awkward questions posed by the UN special rapporteur, just as it remained silent when the Council of Europe questioned it following the publication of an alert issued by the International and the European Federation of Journalists on the Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, denouncing the arbitrary and disproportionate detention regime imposed on Julian Assange.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, representing 47 member states, stated in a resolution issued on 28 January regarding threats to media freedom and journalists’ security, that “the detention and criminal prosecution of Mr Julian Assange sets a dangerous precedent for journalists” and urged member states to “prevent any misuse of different laws or provisions which may impact on media freedom – such as those on defamation, anti-terrorism, national security, public order, hate speech, blasphemy or memory laws – which are too often applied to intimidate and silence journalists”.

An international support campaign

Pending history’s judgement of these free speech predators, increasing numbers of citizens and organisations around the world now view the Assange case, beyond his difficult personal situation, or the controversies over certain Wikileaks methods, to be emblematic of the struggle to defend press freedom. Assange’s many supporters include organisations such as the Freedom of Press Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, numerous jurists, politicians and journalists around the world, or artists and musicians such as Roger Waters or M.I.A. – to name but a few. Even one of Wikileaks’ collateral victims, the French president’s chief speechwriter Quentin Lafay, whose personal information was disclosed in the ‘Macron Leaks’, expressed support for Assange, in an op-ed piece in the newspaper Le Monde, recognising his contribution to key revelations.

At the end of January, the Belgian collective Belgium4Assange organised a three-day event on Place de la Monnaie in Brussels, renamed ‘Place Julian Assange’ for the occasion, during which many came to stand on the fourth (empty) chair of Davide Dormino’s itinerant sculpture, ‘Anything to Say?’, representing Assange, Manning and Snowden standing up against the world. The chair is an invitation to contemplate the worrying state of our democracies.

The event was also an opportunity to pay tribute to all the other, perhaps less well-known, whistleblowers, such as Antoine Deltour, the French auditor behind the ‘LuxLeaks’ affair, who disclosed the well-oiled system of tax optimisation enjoyed by multinationals via Luxembourg to a journalist from the TV channel France 2, or Rui Pinto, the Portuguese hacker behind the ‘Football Leaks’ and, more recently, the ‘Luanda Leaks’. Pinto passed on millions of reports to the German newspaper Der Spiegel on the murky transactions surrounding player transfers and the tax-dodging schemes of certain football stars, who have since been convicted. Rui Pinto is still in prison in Lisbon, awaiting trial on 93 charges.

In early February, news was welcomed of the Brazilian court decision to (provisionally) suspend cyber-crime charges against journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the co-founders of The Intercept, which had revealed the contents of hacked messages proving collusion between former judge and justice minister Sergio Moro and the prosecutors of ‘Car Wash’ anti-corruption investigation. In 2013, Greenwald had helped disclose information provided by Edward Snowden on the surveillance activities of the British and American secret services.

Journalists always need informants or whistleblowers, and in Assange’s case, imprisoning and gagging the messenger will not stop the truth from coming out. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and the many others are the ‘resistance fighters’ of the 21st century. All of these modern-day heroes have sacrificed their freedom for information and sacrificed their lives for the truth.

This story has been translated from French.